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Mol Microbiol. 1999 Mar;31(6):1809-24.

Protonmotive force, ExbB and ligand-bound FepA drive conformational changes in TonB.

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Department of Microbiology, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-4233, USA.


TonB couples the cytoplasmic membrane protonmotive force (pmf) to active transport across the outer membrane, potentially through a series of conformational changes. Previous studies of a TonB transmembrane domain mutant (TonB-delta V17) and its phenotypical suppressor (ExbB-A39E) suggested that TonB is conformationally sensitive. Here, two new mutations of the conserved TonB transmembrane domain SHLS motif were isolated, TonB-S16L and -H20Y, as were two new suppressors, ExbB-V35E and -V36D. Each suppressor ExbB restored at least partial function to the TonB mutants, although TonB-delta V17, for which both the conserved motif and the register of the predicted transmembrane domain alpha-helix are affected, was the most refractory. As demonstrated previously, TonB can undergo at least one conformational change, provided both ExbB and a functional TonB transmembrane domain are present. Here, we show that this conformational change reflects the ability of TonB to respond to the cytoplasmic membrane proton gradient, and occurs in proportion to the level of TonB activity attained by mutant-suppressor pairs. The phenotype of TonB-delta V17 was more complex than the -S16L and -H20Y mutations, in that, beyond the inability to be energized efficiently, it was also conditionally unstable. This second defect was evident only after suppression by the ExbB mutants, which allow transmembrane domain mutants to be energized, and presented as the rapid turnover of TonB-delta V17. Importantly, this degradation was dependent upon the presence of a TonB-dependent ligand, suggesting that TonB conformation also changes following the energy transduction event. Together, these observations support a dynamic model of energy transduction in which TonB cycles through a set of conformations that differ in potential energy, with a transition to a higher energy state driven by pmf and a transition to a lower energy state accompanying release of stored potential energy to an outer membrane receptor.

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